Database Geek of the Week: Gary Mallow

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An interview with Gary Mallow

by Douglas Reilly

Database geeks are all around us. I met Gary Mallow on the email list of a cycling group run by a local church. After some conversation, I discovered that he is a director of a group of developers who build applications, sometimes using .NET and often using Oracle as a database. Like me, Gary is not entirely comfortable with his ability as a UI developer, and so finds database work a good fit.

The following questions were asked and answered via email.

Doug: How did you become involved in database work?

Gary: In the early 1990s, I was working for a small company as the director of software development, and our primary customer had a need for a data-centric financial decision support application. There wasn’t anyone available on the team to build the prototype, so I took on the task.

The database I used for development was Oracle. I had to learn everything from scratch, and also build the front end using an early version of Forms 4.0. The project was successful and I learned that designing and building databases appealed to the very (extremely!) organized person I had always been. A poor user interface developer died, and a competent database developer was born.

Doug: Do you work only with Oracle as a database?

Gary: I am most experienced with Oracle, having built databases in all versions since 6.
As with programming languages, however, the choice of a database technology should be driven by business needs and the most suitable and cost-effective development and deployment environment. I am not one to use something simply because I know it well, or, conversely, because I want to learn it. What fits is what is important. I have worked with Access, SQL Server, mySQL and, for one project, an object-oriented database called ONTOS.

Doug: What is exciting in the world of Oracle these days?

Gary: Oracle is perplexing, and solid when it comes to transactional integrity. But it’s not exciting. The company is always trying to decide what it is. In the 1980s, Oracle achieved prominence not because it was the best database company from a technical perspective, but because the database would run on almost any platform.

Oracle has dabbled over the years in IDEs for application development (forms and reports, business objects), enterprise systems in niche domains (Oracle Financial), and database modeling and design. What is grabbing my attention these days is my company’s decision to end our use of Oracle’s Designer product. I have used it since it came out and swear by its ability to generate linked scripts to create databases, although the designers of its tools for PL/SQL need therapy. I am disappointed that it seems to be dying-admittedly after half-hearted support over the years. I don’t know what my alternative is; finding one will be exciting, I suppose.

Doug: Have you used the various .NET providers for Oracle? Have you done any testing with the new Oracle provider that comes with .NET 2.0?

Gary: My team is heavily into .NET technologies, and many of us are exploring .NET 2.0. I even suspended work on a personal web site in January when one person I work with told me what 2.0 supposedly could do.

The ease of creating data-centric applications is closer to where it needs to be than ever before. To be competitive, developers need products that directly and effectively address productivity, and 2.0 is a real leap from 1.0 and all of its predecessors-“NoDO,” RDO and ADO-in that regard. On the other hand (thank you Microsoft!), the 2.0 Beta only supports SQL Server for the provider for web site security and access management. I refuse to pay the extra charge web site hosting companies want for supporting that, so I am looking into PHP and mySQL.

Doug: I find it interesting that you started your career as a psychologist/academic. I started my programming career working with a team of industrial/organizational psychologists. Do you find that this background helps you deal with the most complex aspect of software, meaning the people who develop and use it?

Gary: I did start my professional career as an academic-I was a physiologist with a focus on animal behavior. It’s not quite psychology, but I took many courses in neurosciences in graduate school. In my back pocket, however, was an undergraduate minor in computer science. I chose not to pursue the latter immediately after undergraduate school since punch cards, character-based interfaces, and mainframes didn’t do anything for me.

In the late 1970s, the paradigm changed and programming became interesting from the visual and other angles. So I jumped out of the academic world and landed a job in a UNIX / C shop. But, to your question, the two things in my personal and educational background that have helped me most when dealing with complex software systems are music and languages (and touch typing!). If you can make it through the Mozart Requiem (I am a bass), in Latin of course, you probably will have some native skills to draw on when building n-tiered, multi-threaded applications.

Doug: Despite your director title, you continue to work in databases. How did you make the transition from technical to technical/managerial?

Gary:I am fortunate to work for a company in which it is common for people at senior levels to do what they loved to do before becoming a manager, be it bench research, software development, whatever.

The company isn’t a software company per se, so software developers are strangers in a strange land. It is important for them to get attention, mentoring and direction from someone who knows what he or she is doing. I enjoy leading teams of developers as much as developing. I am not sure, then, that I have ever had to make a transition; all the companies I have worked for have tolerated, if not encouraged, the two faces of software professional that I present.

Doug: Today, large database systems like Oracle and Microsoft SQL Server need to interact and exchange data with other database systems. Do you do any work with transferring data between Oracle and other systems?

Gary: Products claiming to be all things to all people are never that and are doomed from the start. Knowledge workers need flexibility in the tools available to them to access, integrate, visualize and analyze their data. There are so many data sources on the Internet and available from consortia, academic sources, and so on that convergence on data transfer standards is, as always, critically important and hugely preferable to application standardization.

I was an early student of SGML applications, so my group uses XML wherever it can. Any and all efforts made by Oracle and other database vendors to make XML integration as fluid as possible is to be applauded.

Doug: What sort of work are you doing these days?

Gary: My team works within a very large, global research community to bring new scientific technologies into play. Our internal customers are often past the bleeding edge technology-wise, so we are constantly challenged to provide the software needed to get those technologies up and running quickly while providing value-added capabilities in ease of use, integration with external and internal systems, and improvements in productivity.

I have a dream job for someone with a Ph.D. in the life sciences and the necessary stripes earned building software for companies living or dying based solely on the quality of their software.

Doug: Have you read any good software-related books lately?

Gary: I very seldom read software-related books from cover to cover. I admit to buying a lot of them, but never have the patience to read them through. I skim them, absorb what I need to, and move on.

I mostly read modern fiction, including science fiction. My wife knows to keep her eyes peeled for new books by Joyce Carol Oates (who deserves the Nobel Prize for literature), and I am recommending Alastair Reynolds and China Miéville to all who will listen. Clive Barker is also a favorite. Perverse, but a favorite.

Doug: What music do you listen to these days?

Gary: I have very eclectic tastes in music, as befits someone who has been singing in church choirs since he can remember. My mother was an organist and choir director, and it just seemed the thing to do. My sister has the better voice, though.

My MP3 contains everything from Annie Lenox, Pink and Evanescence to Mozart and Fauré. Being a singer, I often find myself listening to choral music.

I have been working with developers full time since 1983, and there are only two attributes that I find diagnostic during the interview process: professing an unsolicited passion for software and having some musical ability. But I may be biased….

Do you know someone who deserves to be a Database Geek of the Week? Or perhaps that someone is you? Send me an email at editor@simple-talk.com and include “Database Geek of the Week suggestion” in the subject line.